Autumn Woodlands

Dewy New England asters

Dewy New England asters

The Arboretum was filled with hundreds of “leaf-peepers” this sunny, calm, 59-degree afternoon. Twenty-two visitors gathered at the Visitor Center for our public tour and more joined later. Forty of us then set out for an invigorating two-mile hike through Longenecker Gardens and Wingra and Gallistel woods. We got plenty of exercise and an opportunity to see countless hues, tones, and shades of glorious autumn color.

First we stopped at the bottom of the Visitor Center steps to appreciate the last flowers of purple New England aster, white heath aster, and yellow showy goldenrod as well as the pastel fall colors of prairie grasses. And nearby, how could one not marvel at the brilliant, glossy, blaze-red leaves of the 60-some-year-old black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), and the trembling golden leaves of the aspen trees against the clear bright blue sky? What a grand beginning to the fall festival of color we were about to behold.

Maples in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens
Maples in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens

On our way to the woodlands via Longenecker Gardens, we were in awe of the maple collection displaying spectacular red, orange, and yellow color. Also we found a rainbow of colorful fruits. Several different kinds of winterberry shrubs (Ilex sp.) held abundant round fruits, some red, some orange. Other fruits including red rosehips, pink-orange and orange-red Euonymus, red and orange crabapples, and a few blue pagoda dogwood. (Longenecker is a great place to look for fruit-eating birds such as robins and bluebirds.) It was here we heard the “clucking” of robins, the “bleeping” of white-throated sparrows, and the “keew-ing” of the northern flicker.

Walking on, a fragrance similar to sweet vanilla bakery was very noticeable. The mystery odor came from the crisp leaves of the katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum sp.). Though not edible, it was a delightful treat!

Tamarack trees turned gold
Tamarack trees turned gold

We hiked up through the green conifers in the pinetum and into Wingra Woods. Several people found a small snake with some red on the body, I did not see it, but from the description my guess was a young northern red-bellied snake. The yellow leaves of the sugar maples illuminated the entire restored woodland and path as if it was glittering in gold. One visitor said she felt she was walking on “the yellow brick road” (Wizard of Oz). At the Big Spring the once-green needles of the tamarack (Larix laricina) had turned to smoky gold.

The last shrub to bloom in Wisconsin is witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). Its delicate lemon-yellow flowers added to the palette of yellow. “Beauty before me, beauty above me. Beauty below me, beauty all around me” (Navaho prayer song).

Gallistel was also a golden experience, with tall sugar maples overhead and shade-tolerant maple seedlings carpeting the woodland floor. We saw three turkeys near the Indian mounds. We heard the “see-see-see” call of the black-capped chickadee and the soft “purring” of the crickets.

We picked up our pace and headed back to the Visitor Center through Longenecker Gardens. We stopped by the tamarack collection and I read “Smoky Gold” from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac (a book you must read!).

The display of fall color in the Arboretum was breathtakingly beautiful today. Walk often, watch, listen, and breathe in the ripeness of autumn. Most of all enjoy every precious moment in this lovely oasis. And remember this day when the first snowflake falls.

—Sylvia Marek

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